Honey from the 'hood: A new flow from Pittsburgh's urban neighborhoods
The swank honey these days is harvested from city hives atop buildings in Manhattan's East Village and Chicago's West Side.
An 8-ounce jar of New York City Rooftop Honey goes for $15 at the city's Union Square farm market. The Chicago Honey Co-op ships honey and beeswax products packaged with panache.
City honey finds a sympathetic market. There's the incongruity: City bees produce quality honey, foraging empty lots, flower boxes, even cut flowers -- within a couple of miles of their urban base. Also, urban beekeepers tend to be eloquent spokespeople for the embattled honeybee and its role in nature's balance.
In the past five years, Pittsburgh has acquired its own honey from the 'hood.
The new apiarists, mostly "backyarders and serious sideliners" as one veteran puts it, bring a social conscience and an array of professional skills to their efforts as beekeepers. Many are attracted to urban agriculture.
Christina Neumann, 31, of Shaler, in her third full season of tending hives, typifies the face and energy of the new wave.
She takes off next month to spend six months at the Volcano Island Honey Co. on Hawaii's Big Island, where she will work with the producers of one of the world's leading raw organic honeys.
Ms. Neumann is a former corporate architect, trained at Carnegie Mellon University, who describes herself good-humoredly as "in transition." She is in the midst of re-tooling her career toward landscape architecture to allow her to deepen her focus on honeybees and their "keystone" role in the ecology. She has several hives tucked into the side yard of a century-old house that has been in her family for five generations.
Her studio on the third floor overlooks a purposeful European-style garden. It is crammed with bee-friendly plantings. She is mindful of her carbon footprint and is apt to bike across the river for a meeting or to drop off a botanical drawing she's done on freelance assignment with the Phipps and Hunt Botanical Library.
Like Ms. Neumann's boutique-size Apoidea Apiary, Pittsburgh's urban apiarists tend to run small operations, nestled on strips of green in old hillside neighborhoods. Hives thrive in the North Side and the South Side, McKees Rocks and Blawnox.
Deron Johnson, a 40-something Delta pilot who keeps his 10 hives on Polish Hill, is probably the grand old man of the urbanists. In five years of selling, primarily at the Farmers@Firehouse farm market in the Strip District that his hives overlook, Mr. Johnson's spring floral and darker fall knotweed honeys have acquired a following.
Marketgoers peer into his observation hive with its cobalt-blue-daubed queen bee and linger to chat with the beekeeper, who, like most, never tires of sharing his fascination with honeybees.
For metal artist Jan Loney, the fact that she is a gardener "makes beekeeping a natural extension." She's been intrigued since nibbling comb honey as the toddler granddaughter and great-granddaughter of beekeepers. Married to graphic artist Larkin Werner, and mother of Jack, 3, Ms. Loney works at Metalier, her Lawrenceville studio. She keeps her bees near the couple's North Side home.
The Burgh Bees
Ms. Neumann calls Ms. Loney "a key connector" for Burgh Bees, a loose association of apiarist educators who offer programs and extend a hand to aspiring urban beekeepers.
A Burgh Bees class at the East End Food Co-op in Point Breeze this March drew 50 people. Many were gardeners with community plots in Squirrel Hill, Lawrenceville and Point Breeze.
"Rather than this idea that beekeeping is a dangerous thing that you need rural acres for, it can be part of the urban agriculture exploration," Ms. Loney says.
Burgh Bees holds hive-side sessions, suiting people up to meet bees at their Open Hive Sundays. Jennifer Wood, another of the group's mentors, and her husband, Robert Steffes, host the groups at their apiary in Aliquippa. Ms. Wood, a Penn State communications professor, and Mr. Steffes, a corporate pilot, got into the game five or six years ago. She says things got off to a rocky start at a beginners' seminar one too-intense Saturday. "It was like drinking from a fire hose. 'No way in hell,' we said.
"But there was this gentleman in the back who offered to mentor and to sell us hives. Here was someone who was willing to be with us. It would have been way too daunting without help. We bought two hives in May and two weeks later, one swarmed. Our mentor, Ed Kinter of Portersville, now in his 80s, drove out and helped us recapture it. Now we have 10 hives."
Western Pennsylvania has three master beekeepers, of Pennsylvania's total of 17. These are veteran apiarists, mostly men in their 60s, who pass a written and practical exam administered by the Eastern Apicultural Society. They are expected to teach.
"I love working with the master beekeepers," says Ms. Neumann. "It is almost one generation to another. I revere these guys -- many are so in touch with the ecology."
She cites apiarist Bob Stein of Shaler, who lives a mile as the bee flies from her house, as her "dedicated mentor."
"And Bob Jenereski's style with bees, for example, is very Zen. He often works without a suit or veil."
Mr. Jenereski of Warrendale, a retired Westinghouse and Sprint financial executive, says he's worked personally with 20 new beekeepers so far this year. "I gave 10 hives to new beekeepers. The current interest is tremendous all over the country -- so much so that supplies are hard to get."
With the swarm season just past, "What's a swarm?" you may ask.
"A hive swarming sounds pretty dramatic and is dramatic to see," Ms. Wood says. "It's been a phenomenal year for swarms this year because the bees have had plenty of spring nectar and are increasing population fast. When hives get too crowded, about half will take off with a new queen. This may also happen if the original hive's queen has gotten old. The bees will swarm with a new queen. The best thing you can do is try to recapture them and put them into a new hive."
Though scary looking, bees are at their tamest when they swarm. "The bees have stuffed themselves with nectar (for the trip) and are so engorged they can't fully extend their stingers. Also they don't have a hive to defend."
Recapturing the bees can be low-tech. Some people use a sort of butterfly net on a long pole that is jammed up into the swarm. The bees tumble into it and are shaken down into a new hive body. Others use a bucket on a pole with a closeable lid.
"It's been a wild, wild year for swarms. I've had more than 20 this year," says longtime Verona beekeeper Jim Fitzroy, who heads the Beaver Valley Area Association for Beekeepers. Mr. Fitzroy goes around the city recapturing bees to be reestablished in new hives. "They can be held in a Styrofoam cooler with a screen top. When you shake them into a hive, they go right in and you can see them lining up, like little kids in a Catholic school."
Mentors are particularly important for city beekeepers, Ms. Neumann says. "If their bees swarm, the owners have a special responsibility to recapture them quickly. The neighbor who finds an escaped hive hanging from the front porch may not be pleased.
"You must provide water or your bees will find the nearest supply, which might be your neighbor's swimming pool (bees love chlorinated water). You need a 6-foot barrier of some sort, so that as bees go on forays they fly up and over rather than at the level of a passerby. The bees must be protected and neighbors educated a bit. In city environments hives are more likely to be knocked over or sprayed with Raid."
Braddock bees on the payroll
Heaven, for a gang of escaped bees, is a nice dark, abandoned building. This is a resource that the former mill town of Braddock still can offer, despite energetic steps toward revitalization under the leadership of Mayor John Fetterman. As the Braddock bees zoom in and out of an empty structure, they sometimes make the mayor nervous, since he is not the mayor of them.
But he is a vocal champion of urban agriculture. So is Miriam Manion, director of Grow Pittsburgh, an agency providing "visibility and leadership" to urban gardens all over the city.
The largest and newest Grow Pittsburgh effort is Braddock's organic demonstration farm, Braddock Farms, spreading its green over several abandoned lots along the main drag, Braddock Avenue. Mr. Fetterman and Ms. Manion, along with Ms. Neumann and her colleague, Mr. Fitzroy, have hatched a plan.
By this time next year, Braddock's own bees should be well along in a season of honey-making. They will be extracted from their squatter digs next April and placed into hives, which Ms. Neumann envisions on a warehouse roof. The hives will be tended by Grow Pittsburgh beekeepers, who will be mentored by the Burgh Bees, so that Braddock's own bees can lend their buzz to the Braddock urban agriculture initiative.